‘The will of the people’ is wrecking British universities

I managed to go about 30 minutes without thinking about Brexit. Might be a new record for me. But if I can stop shaking my head long enough, I want to ruminate on what this expression of the will of the people means for universities.

First off, politicians claiming to know what “the people” voted for, whether leaving the single market, wanting a level playing ground for non-EU immigrants, or something about fish, are deluding themselves. I once witnessed a student society unanimously vote to fire an employee, even though no one really wanted him gone. They intended to send him a message to watch his step, by engineering a vote in which he would squeak through with a tiny majority. They badly miscalculated. Brexit morning brought this memory flooding back.

As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Representative Government, people can cast a “base and mischievous vote … from the voter’s personal interest, or class interest, or some mean feeling in his own mind”. Political scientists claim that some even vote simply to cancel out their spouse’s contribution. All we can ever safely conclude is that more votes were cast on one side than another. But we can be pretty sure that at most only a modest number of people cast their vote with the express intention of wrecking British universities.

As Brexit creeps closer, what are the consequences for universities? The staggering thing is that in many areas we still have no idea. Consider opportunities and fees for students. November’s joint EU-UK political declaration says: “The parties agree to consider conditions for entry and stay for purposes such as research, study, training and youth exchanges.” Thanks very much.

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UK students need to know whether they will still have access to something like the Erasmus scheme, which, since 1987, has allowed more than 200,000 students to study in Europe as part of their UK degree. Making the year abroad more difficult could be the kiss of death for language degrees, which are already struggling.

There are two momentous questions for the recruitment of all students. What fees will EU students be charged? And will non-EU students still find the UK appealing? We can model, but prediction is no more than a punt at the moment. One possibility is that nothing much changes, with a deal on EU student fees and overall student recruitment in all categories bumps along as is. A second is that EU students are charged the higher overseas fees but students continue to enrol in good numbers, leading to a rare Brexit bonus. A third is that fees are raised, choking off EU demand, especially with competition from cheap programmes in English in Germany, Holland and elsewhere. If demand also falls as a result of the country feeling less welcoming to those from abroad, UK higher education is looking into the abyss.

How can a university plan in the face of such uncertainty? The sensible thing is to stay as flexible as possible. Suspend expensive new initiatives; build up cash reserves; be ready to react swiftly when there is greater certainty. Most universities have inadvertently done the opposite. Many are locked into the decision to increase student numbers and improve facilities, with half-finished buildings on every campus. This was supported by borrowing, backed up with projections of ever-increasing student numbers to pay off the debt. If revenue plummets, they will be in a much bigger crisis than they are letting on, perhaps having to sell and lease back their meagre assets to service debt. Vulture capital, no doubt, is already testing out the thermals, ready to swoop.

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